I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie’s books, most of which I’ve really enjoyed, but I’m not too keen on her books that involve spies and gangs of international criminals who are seeking world domination. And The Big Four, first published in 1927, is one of those books.
Basically it’s a collection of short stories (derived from a series of stories that first appeared in The Sketch, a weekly magazine) in which Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings lock forces with a vast organisation of crime led by four individuals, in the course of which they uncover the identity of the ‘Big Four’. The aim of the Four is ‘to destroy the existing social order, and to replace it with an anarchy in which they would reign as dictators.’ They are a Chinese man, Li Chang Yen, an American multi-millionaire, a French woman and ‘the Destroyer’, an Englishman. Poirot is convinced that they are behind everything:
The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that break out in some. There are people, not scaremongers, who know what they are talking about, and they say that there is a force behind the scenes which aims at nothing less than the destruction of civilisation. (page 25)
In the course of their investigations Poirot and Hastings find themselves in many dangerous situations, all melodramatic and a little far-fetched, from which they miraculously escape certain death. The Big Four is action packed, with Poirot uncharacteristically chasing off after the criminals, still using his ‘little grey cells’ of course, whilst Hastings is knocked out and kidnapped, and Li Chang Yen threatens to abduct and torture Hasting’s wife, whom he had left behind in their ranch in the Argentine.
This is not one of my favourite Agatha Christie books. But perhaps it is not so surprising that The Big Four is far from her best. It was in December 1926 that Agatha Christie disappeared after her husband, Archie Christie had told her he wanted a divorce and in 1927 she was still recovering from this. It was her brother-in-law’s suggestion that the last Poirot short stories she had published could be re-written to ‘have the appearance of a book‘ as a ‘stop-gap‘ – and the result was The Big Four, which, I think, suffers from being a loosely connected collection of episodes. Agatha explained in her Autobiography that Campbell Christie had helped her with linking the short stories as she was ‘unable to tackle anything of the kind.‘ (Autobiography page 365)